If your air conditioning system is having trouble keeping up with its head load or behaving strangely, you might think the problem is a low refrigerant charge. Leaks are relatively common in residential air conditioning systems, and low refrigerant pressure can cause your system to freeze, short cycle, or inadequately cool your home.
However, checking your refrigerant isn't as straightforward as checking the oil in your car. In fact, there's no simple way to measure the overall refrigerant charge in an air conditioning system since the refrigerant can exist in both vapor and liquid states. Diagnosing a problem relating to your system's refrigerant typically requires much more skill and expertise.
Understanding Refrigerant Pressures
Refrigerant collects and releases heat energy by changing states. The refrigerant enters your evaporator coil as a cool liquid, absorbing heat and boiling into a vapor. This hot vapor then travels back to the compressor, drastically increasing its pressure (and temperature) to release heat into the outdoor environment.
If you remember a little high school chemistry, you'll quickly realize that the pressure won't be the same if you measure it at different points in the system. These two halves of your AC system are the high and low or discharge and suction lines. A technician needs to look at the pressure on both sides of your system to measure the refrigerant charge.
Unfortunately, measuring the high and low sides won't tell you everything you need to know. Pressure can vary for many reasons, including the ambient temperature and even the airflow across your evaporator coil. If you're experiencing a problem with your air conditioner, pressure readings alone aren't sufficient to determine if the system needs additional refrigerant.
How AC Techs Diagnose Problems
Like everything else, your system's pressure readings are only useful in context. If your AC tech suspects a refrigerant issue, they will need to look at two additional readings: subcooling and superheating. These technical terms refer to the "excess" refrigerant temperature below and above its boiling point. These values put the pressure readings in context and can reveal other issues with the system.
Your system pressure along with your superheat and subcooling values can help an experienced tech narrow down the possible range of culprits. What may look like a low-pressure situation or leak to the untrained eye may be a restriction at the thermostatic expansion valve or another issue preventing an adequate amount of refrigerant from reaching the evaporator.
Ultimately, it's important to remember that residential air conditioning systems are complex pieces of equipment. Problems are rarely as simple as checking refrigerant pressures and topping up the system; this approach may even cause more damage. If your system isn't cooling as it should, it's best to rely on a professional for a thorough and accurate diagnosis.
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